Monday, February 27, 2017

"Beyond the Ballpark"

I am a big fan of reading baseball histories and biographies, and the first one I have read in 2017 is "Beyond the Ballpark: The Honorable, Immoral, and Eccentric Lives of Baseball Legends." It was written by John A. Wood, who is a professor of religion at Baylor University, and is also a member of SABR, the Society of Baseball Research.

Wood has complied a book on the lives of 50 members of Baseball's Hall of Fame, and it goes beyond the usual statistics that the greats have put together that fanatics like myself can quote in their sleep. He puts his immortals into four categories: "Good Guys," "Mixed Bags", "The Eccentrics" and the "Sad Cases."

The Good Guys are the ones you'd expect, like Walter Johnson, Hank Greenberg and Cy Young. Men who lived stellar lives and who'd love to go and have a beer with and talk about not just baseball but life in general.

The Mixed Bags are the men who were great players or managers, but whose flaws are well-known, like John McGraw, Ty Cobb and Leo Durocher. McGraw is shown as a caring and decent man away from the game but will do anything, absolutely anything, to win games.Wood goes into plenty of detail about Cobb, one of MLB's most controversial figures of all-time, and about Cobb and race. He repeats some of the widely-held beliefs about Cobb's racism, which has been challenged recently. (Please read Charles Leerhsen's terrific book "Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty", which seeks to debunk many of which Wood goes into.)

The Eccentrics goes into what can easily be called "The Clown Princes of Baseball." They include Babe Ruth, Casey Stengel and Rube Waddell. I've always found Rube an interesting study, and Wood goes into all his antics, from chasing fire engines to playing with kids by the stands. These are the guys who made baseball fun, and MLB today could always use guys like this today.

The final chapter is the Sad Cases, the immortals who made their mark on the game, but came to sad ends after their playing days concluded, such as Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and the trio of Tinker, Evers and Chance.

Wood goes into plenty of detail about the lives after baseball of all the immortals in his book, touching on their religions, families and wives, and how successful they were in the next lives. It is a fascinating look at the men whose exploits on the field will live forever at Cooperstown, but for many, weren't as successful when the game concluded.

"Beyond the Ballpark" is now available through Rowman & Littlefield Books.

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